How to Pack Camera Gear For Kayaking and Canoeing

waterproof camera cases

For issue 28 of Ocean Paddler, I wrote an article about my approach to kayak expedition photography. In it I touched on the subject of how to pack camera gear for kayaking. I use a similar approach for canoeing. Essentially, my approach is based on the idea that if you can’t get to the camera, you can’t take the picture. There’s no ideal solution for every situation, but you have plenty of choices for waterproof camera cases.

In the above picture (staring left and going clockwise): Pelican 1020 case, SealLine Baja 5 HD, Pelican 1400 case, Aquapac SLR case, Aquapac Mini Camera with Hard Lens case. Cameras are a Canon S95 and a Nikon FM3a.

Hardcore Camera Protection

Pelican waterproof camera caseIf you need the best camera protection, then a hard case, such as the Pelican cases, are the way to go. These cases protect your electronics from impacts and water. When sealed correctly they are waterproof, dustproof and airtight, which is more than dry bags will claim. The bigger sizes come with foam inserts that you can customize to fit your gear exactly.

Pelican cases make it very easy to get to your gear. You just unsnap the latches, lift the lid and grab your camera. In rougher water, it’s fast and feels safer than using a dry bag. Getting your gear back into the case is also quick and easy. You don’t feel like you’re fighting the case when you use these. The best way to use a Pelican case is to have it at your feet in a canoe or to have it strapped to the deck or between your knees in a kayak. That makes it easy to get to.

The downside is that you need large hatches to get the bigger sizes into your kayak. I find that they work much better for canoe trips than kayak trips (mainly because I have round hatches on my kayaks). The other downside is that they’re heavy. I have friends that use these cases to carry computers, sat phones and such, but they have kayaks with larger hatch covers. I typically carry a small one for my point and shoot, but don’t often use the larger one. The two that I bought are the Pelican Case 1400 Dry Box and the Pelican 1020 Micro Case. (Note: The links go to NRS. As of Jan ’12, they are on sale!) The 1400 has enough space for my camera and a couple of lenses. The 1020 fits my point and shoot perfectly.

The Verdict: Get a hard case if you need the best protection, quick access and have larger hatches in your kayak or are a canoeist, and if you don’t mind the extra weight.

Softcore Camera Protection

waterproof camera case drybagCombining a drybag, such as SealLine’s 5-liter Nimbus Dry Bag, with foam from an old sleeping pad yields a compact, lightweight, protective and waterproof camera bag — although no drybag is dry forever, they all leak when left emerged for extended periods. You can see an example of homemade paddling in the picture to the right. Cut a round piece that fits in the bottom of the dry bag and then cut a piece that wraps completely around the circumference of the dry bag. You insert the camera lens down and then put your shoulder strap on top of the camera to protect the LCD screen.

This arrangement makes it easy to pack the camera into a kayak with smaller hatches — it even fits into a day hatch — or into a portage pack and it’s much lighter than a Pelican case. It also easily slides under the bungee cords on a kayak’s deck. To use this case, keep it at your feet or under the seat in your canoe or between your knees in a kayak. When you’re ready for a picture, pull it out, unroll the top, put the strap around your neck and then pull the camera out.

The downside is that it takes longer to get the camera out of the bag than it does with a Pelican case. The other downside is that it feels a little fiddly in waves trying to get the camera out of the bag and it feel worse getting the camera back in.

The Verdict: Get a soft case if you need an easy-to-pack, lightweight case for your camera.

Waterproof Camera Case

aquapac waterproof camera caseWaterproof camera cases, such as Aquapac’s SLR Case or their Mini Camera Case, protect your camera from water by enclosing it within a completely waterproof case and let you shoot through a piece of plexiglass in front of your lens. These are the ideal solution for situations when you need to shoot while water splashes around your camera. Aquapacs cases are rated to 15 feet underwater.

To use, you insert your camera, close the unique snap closure and shoot away. It couldn’t be easier. In rough water, you know that you can get the shot without getting your camera wet. You can also use these underwater. I’ve used the Mini Camera Case while snorkeling. It was great fun. On the water, just let the strap hang around your neck (watch out for entrapment issues).

The downside to these camera cases is that they don’t provide protection against bumps and you need to make sure that you don’t scratch the plexiglass lens element.

The Verdict: Get a waterproof camera case if you need to take pictures underwater or in rough water.

Waterproof Camera

If you don’t want to mess with a DSLR or high-end point-and-shoot, because you don’t need that quality of images from your trips, then consider a waterproof camera, such as Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS3 Rugged/Waterproof Digital Camera. While the image quality doesn’t add up to that of other point-and-shoots, and it falls flat when compared to point-and-shoots that can shoot RAW or even the lowest-end DSLR, waterproof cameras let you get the picture without having to worry about cases.

To use, just clip the strap to your life vest and tuck the camera into a pocket. To shoot, take it out and press the button. It couldn’t be easier. The other nice feature about these cameras is that you can attach a tripod to your kayak and film yourself doing rolls. While not doing rolls, I used a suction cup tripod from Kayalu Gear to make the video at the bottom of my Boundary Waters Routes: Sag and Seagull Loop trip report.

The Verdict: Get a waterproof camera if you don’t want to mess with camera cases.

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  • Careful when putting gear between your knees in a kayak. I had to do a very serious rescue one time when my friend flipped and got stuck under the water because she couldn’t close her legs to wet exit. If your going to put stuff there, especially if its a big pelican case….make sure your roll is bombproof.

    • Good point, Steve. I’ve practiced wet exiting with something between my knees, but I’ve never found that it was an issue. No roll is 100% bombproof, the only truth about rolling is the amount of time that passed since your last swim. So, before you add anything to the interior of your cockpit — camera case, knee tube, under deck bag — you should practice wet exiting in a controlled environment to see if it will entrap you.

  • Like you I have been using pelican cases for years to protect my cameras (I have two, a smaller one for my 30X zoom point & shoot for whitewater and rough conditions and a larger case for my DSLR on calm waters). After 6 years I have never had a camera get wet. I found it easily possible to use medium size carabiners to clip my pelican to the bungees just in front of my cockpit. That way I never have to remove my kayaking skirt to access the case (or put it between my knees). I can get in or replace the camera in about 5 seconds, which helps to prevent missing the great shots that happen so fast on the water. On my ww boat I screwed on two cleats to hook the carabiners to and this keeps the pelican from moving around.

    If you are afraid of hurting your deck finish I put one of those sea kayak zipper bags on first and the pelican case on top of that. Works great.

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